new-falcon-herald-primary-logo-800px
Feature Articles

Talking to kids about school shootings

By Deb Risden

In the first four months of 2023, there have been 14 school shootings resulting in injuries or death, as reported by Education Week (https://www.edweek.org). There were 10 in 2020, 35 in 2021 and 51 in 2022. The types of incidents included in these statistics include a firearm being discharged and any individual other than the suspect or perpetrator with a bullet wound. The conflicts took place on K-12 school property or a school bus while school was in session or during a school-sponsored event. 

The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that exposure to school shootings within the community leads to increased antidepressant use and suicide. 

Phillip Levine and Robin McKnight, Wellesley College professors, examined longitudinal data from 1999 to 2020 from the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. Levine and McKnight said, “We find evidence of impacts on exposed children in the years following a shooting. Our strongest evidence comes in the form of lower test scores among students affected by the Sandy Hook school shooting and an increased risk of suicide or accidental deaths among students affected by the Columbine High School shooting. In both cases, boys were more susceptible to longer-lasting impacts.”

The impact of school shootings goes beyond those directly impacted in their schools and communities. A 2021 JAMA Network Open article reported that a study of more than 2,000 teens found that concerns about school shootings and violence predicts increases in anxiety and panic. In 2022, Education Week reported that research indicates heightened anxiety interferes with learning.

Rebecca A. Baldwin, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist who practices in Colorado Springs and Monument, Colorado,said there are three types of trauma: acute, chronic and complex. “Acute is what happens immediately. Chronic is something you get exposed to over and over again. Complex is varied with multiple avenues of trauma. School shootings have all three,” Baldwin said. She said there is the immediate reaction, followed by media exposure and then the complexities of grief and guilt. 

Talking about violence in schools with children is inevitable, Baldwin said. “The American Psychological Association usually advises not talking to children under the age of 6 about violence in school,” she said. “But information is out there all the time, and a large percentage of schools have active shooter drills. So kids are exposed to it.” She suggests parents learn what kind of drills the school is conducting and what they are telling the children. Baldwin said it is important for parents to review the instructions with their children and encourage them to listen to their teachers if a situation should occur. “They are developing a positive coping strategy by having an action plan,” she said. “Reinforce it by asking them what they are going to do if they feel scared.” 

The amount and type of communication about drills and after a traumatic event should be tailored to the individual child in an age-appropriate manner. “First, you have to process your own emotions. You want to be calm when you talk to your child, no matter their age,” she said.

For younger children, especially around 8 years old and under, Baldwin said, “Have a one-sentence statement prepared. Think about what you want to convey and what they are going to hear you say. If you are talking about a school shooting, you can say that some people may be very sad or angry and they might be so angry that they want to hurt somebody. If you are talking about drills, you can say they are having these drills in case somebody wants to come inside the building and hurt someone. Your school wants to keep you safe, and you need to listen and pay attention.” She said be prepared to answer questions the child might have but there is no need to elaborate for younger children. “Under the age of 8, children cannot process why somebody would want to do this. It’s hard enough for adults. You don’t want to make them feel anxious, and you want them to feel their school is a safe place,” she said. 

Older children are able to process more information. It’s important to help kids filter all the information they get from the media, including social media, and also from their peers. Baldwin also suggested turning off the TV, limiting the amount of media and social media children are exposed to. “Also, encourage them to talk about what their friends are saying,” she said. “You want to be able to filter what is accurate and what is not accurate.” 

Getting help

If a child has been involved in a violent situation such as an active shooter, Baldwin said they need to get help immediately. “There’s usually a crisis team available after a school or community shooting. They will have resources,” she said. “They are trained professionals.” She also recommended accessing employee assistance programs that might be available through the parent’s employer. School districts have a list of mental health professionals who work with children. “The most important thing is to find a mental health professional who understands the complexity of these issues,” she said. “Ask if they have had continuing education in the field. These are situations you don’t mess with.”

There are signs to watch for immediately and as time passes. Baldwin said younger children might be clingy, act out, not talk about what’s bothering them or exhibit bed-wetting. Older children might be more destructive or disrespectful. “Look for behavior changes,” she said. They might have feelings of guilt if they experienced an event where others have been killed or injured. They might feel revengeful, but they don’t know what to do with those emotions. “For older kids, the recent political marches are an example of a healthy way to deal with their emotions. They are taking action that is positive,” Baldwin said. 

“It is important for the child to form a relationship with a mental health provider early because reactions phase in, and they might not experience the full impact of what happened until a couple years later when they go through another developmental phase. It’s a matter of ongoing support.”

Pull quote: “We find evidence of impacts on exposed children in the years following a shooting. Our strongest evidence comes in the form of lower test scores among students affected by the Sandy Hook school shooting and an increased risk of suicide or accidental deaths among students affected by the Columbine High School shooting. In both cases, boys were more susceptible to longer-lasting impacts.”

Phillip Levine and Robin McKnight

StratusIQ Fiber Internet Falcon Advertisement

Current Weather

Search Businesses

Search Businesses